Planning official defends agency's shuffle

Activists fear moving CHAP would hurt efforts

May 21, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

At a spirited City Hall forum last night attended by dozens of preservation activists, Baltimore's top planning official, Otis Rolley III, defended a city government shuffle that will move the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation to the planning department July 1.

Judith P. Miller, the commission chairwoman, assured a network of city activists that the merger could benefit the city's planning and preservation efforts without eroding the commission's independence. She added it might provide a clearer line of communication to Mayor Martin O'Malley, who proposed the change in a City Council bill.

"Otis Rolley and I have a deal, and we are going to work it out," Miller said. "He understands we need to be autonomous."

The commission, known as CHAP, has operated for years in the city's Housing and Community Development department. The 11 volunteer commissioners designate historical districts and landmarks and decide sensitive development issues such as whether a structure should be saved or demolished.

The mayor's office announced the administrative change during the demolition of the Odorite, a state-owned 1915 building in the Mount Vernon historic district. It was a loss that preservationists mentioned several times during last night's meeting organized by City Council President Sheila Dixon.

Several activists said the Odorite's outcome made them question whether the administration was hostile to preserving pieces of Baltimore's past.

Paul Warren, a community leader in Mount Vernon, said, "There's a lot of skepticism about the balance of power between developers and preservationists."

But Clarence Bishop, O'Malley's chief of staff, defended the move, saying, "The mayor thought we should incorporate preservation into planning, not as a sidebar, not as a Johnny-come-lately."

Legislation for the bill was recently withdrawn amid some political static in the City Council, prompting the administrative change instead.

"We did a poor job of rolling it out, but this will not diminish CHAP's authority or responsibility," Rolley said. "It will provide resources to CHAP."

Rolley said merging CHAP's staff of seven with the planning staff of 44 would create a better base to serve both the planning and the preservation commissions. The issue of CHAP's self-governance was particularly sensitive, Miller said. The CHAP commissioners will continue to choose the executive director.

But council member Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said he is not convinced. "The jury's still out," he said.

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